Before “The Hangover” hit theaters, Ken Jeong issued a warning to his father:
“Don’t take mom.”
A doctor by training, the 39-year-old Greensboro native has seen his share of patients in their birthday suits. But in “The Hangover,” the physician-turned-comedian truly gives his all.
Jeong appears in the movie as flamboyant crime boss Mr. Chow. In what is perhaps the film’s most-talked-about scene, he jumps out of a trunk naked into the arms of heartthrob Bradley Cooper — and proceeds to hit him with a tire iron.
“When my mom sees it, I think she will understand it,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “She’s very supportive of what I do. I think a lot of people worry, though, about their kid being put in a compromising position, especially when it involves nudity. And I get that. But I wanted my dad to see it himself and hear what he thought about it first. So we’re kind of being protective of her right now.”
Jeong, a 1986 graduate of Page High School, has, for the time being, stopped diagnosing broken bones and started tickling funny bones with films such as “Pineapple Express,” “Role Models” and “Knocked Up.” He is also set to appear this summer alongside Will Ferrell and Jeremy Piven in “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard” and Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in “Funny People.”
‘I can’t believe you do this’
The son of Korean immigrants D.K. and Young Jeong, Ken said growing up he was more interested in getting into a good college than being the class clown. In high school he took part in the High IQ team, played violin in the orchestra and was elected to student council. He graduated at 16 and his achievements earned him Greensboro’s Youth of the Year award.
“It’s odd how life can turn out,” he said. “I never had any aspirations whatsoever of acting or doing comedy. I never had any inkling to do plays or drama. A lot of my friends from high school say, ‘I can’t believe you do this.’ And I tell them, ‘Trust me, I can’t believe it either.’ ”
But people did tell him he was funny, and as a sophomore at Duke University he decided to take a drama class for fun. Soon he was considering pursuing a double major in pre-med and drama. But when he brought up the idea to his parents, they were less-than enthusiastic.
“I told him, ‘Son, you’ll starve. You can make more and have a happier life in medicine,’ ” said D.K. Jeong, a retired N.C. A&T professor of economics. “But I promised him that if he got into medical school, I would give him the opportunity to develop his hobby and go anywhere in the world to develop his hobby.”
Though initially disappointed by his father’s reaction, Ken is now grateful that his parents insisted he stay on track to become a doctor.
“My dad, he did me a big solid,” he said. “Majoring in drama and pre-med would have been insane. Anyone who has a drama degree knows how much work that involves. It’s just about the same amount of dedication that you would need to do pre-med. It would have been impossible to do both and to do them well.”
Still, he performed in several plays while a senior at Duke. And his father did keep his promise. Once Ken was accepted into medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill, D.K. gave him money to enroll in a summer theater class at UCLA.
While at Chapel Hill, he also started doing stand-up comedy, and in 1995, while in his residency at a New Orleans hospital, he won a comedy contest judged by Improv Comedy Club founder Budd Friedman and former NBC entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff.
Ken went on to become a general practitioner playing clubs on the side and eventually scoring appearances on “The Office,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Cedric the Entertainer Presents.” His big break came in 2007 when he was cast in the Judd Apatow vehicle “Knocked Up.” Being a real-life doctor, he said, helped him land the role as Katherine Heigl’s confrontational OB-GYN in the raunchy relationship comedy.
“The first scene I did with those guys, I didn’t have any lines, and me and Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl would just improvise for 10 minutes,” he said. “And I remember getting applause at the end of the scene. No one ever applauds after a scene, so to get that kind of love, that was the greatest moment of my career.”
The father of two still holds a medical license, and his wife, Tran, continues to run a family practice outside Los Angeles. But at about the time “Knocked Up” came out, he decided to pursue acting full time.
The full monty
“The Hangover” centers around a group of friends who head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. But they get drugged and wake up with a tiger and baby in their hotel room, their about-to-be-married buddy missing, and no recollection of what transpired the night before. They also have the misfortune to get mixed up with Mr. Chow.
Ken describes the character as someone who learned everything he knows about America from watching ’70s sitcoms. When clothed, he sports platform heels, white slacks and mirrored aviator glasses. The actor said he played Mr. Chow as a metrosexual with an accent that was a cross between Korean and Vietnamese.
In the script, he was supposed to be dressed when he jumped out of the trunk. But Ken said he suggested to director Todd Phillips doing the scene nude.
“As an actor, I felt I needed something to justify my anger,” he said. “And I thought about Ving Rhames, who was a crime boss in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ and how he was humiliated sexually (by a pair of sadistic yokels) in that movie. But they had no idea who they were messing with, and once he got free, he came back with a vengeance. In the movie, I come back and demand they give me my money and restore my dignity or I will kill their friend.”
The scene is full frontal, and Ken said he explained to his father, months before the release, what to expect.
D.K. came to the United States on a scholarship in 1964. He taught at A&T for 35 years, and among his students was future congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (who cited the professor as a mentor in his book “A More Perfect Union”). Ken describes him as a traditionalist, but one with a good sense of humor who could work a classroom like a comedian would a nightclub.
Still, D.K. said, he was “shell-shocked” when he saw the scene.
“I instantly had a splitting headache. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned,” the elder Jeong said. “But the young people in the theater, they really seemed to be enjoying it. They kept laughing.”
And the more he thought about it, the more he came to appreciate “the audacity of his creative comedic talent.” It also helped to know that it was Ken who made the decision himself to appear naked, and that he wasn’t forced into it by anyone.
“When I looked at it that way, that it was his decision, it was his creative idea, my headache disappeared,” he said. “And I’m proud of him. He’s very talented. And if he can make some contribution to make other people happy, then I’m happy.”
Ken said he feels his father handled seeing the scene very well.
“My dad and I, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other,” he said. “I consider him to be my best friend. And what really makes me feel great is for my father to understand a movie as raunchy as ‘The Hangover’ and to understand creatively my point of view and why I made the decision to do that scene naked. For him to actually respect that, it says volumes about his trust for me.”
The movie topped the box office the past two weekends and has grossed more than $104 million so far.
But D.K. says he’s not sure yet when he’ll take his wife to see it.
“Eventually I will take her,” he said. “She’s very proud of him. But she’s very conservative and when she sees the naked scene, I don’t know how she’ll react.”